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County commission candidates face off

The Multnomah County Commission debate, hosted by the City Club of Portland, featured candidates from District 1 and District 4 on Friday, Oct. 14, at the Sentinel Hotel downtown. The conversation was focused on how the county’s services and partnerships with other local governments can best advance racial equity and economic opportunity for all.

Running for District 1 are Sharon Meieran and Eric Zimmerman, and running for District 4 are Amanda Schroeder and Lori Stegmann. The debate was moderated by Kalpana Krishnamurthy, senior policy director at Forward Together.

District 1

Q: What changes need to be made in the mental health system?

Zimmerman said a shift needs to be made to include mental health care in the overall health care system. He has fought to bring funding to a community Behavioral Health Center, so ambulances and police officers have somewhere to take those struggling with mental health outside of the jails and emergency rooms.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHISTOPHER KEIZUR - The candidates for District 1 are Eric Zimmerman and Sharon Meieran.“We can’t start on a path of mental health care if folks are living on a different sidewalk every night,” Zimmerman said. “We need to be able to provide shelters for everyone in the county.”

Mental health is one of the areas Meieran is most passionate about, since her time as an ER doctor had her working with those suffering. She disagrees with the “shelter everyone” policy, because she said some on the streets are afraid of shelters and don’t want to be placed there. Instead she would force relationships and meet them halfway.

“We need to adopt a different approach,” she said. “Create a shift in how we treat people, because the county has fallen woefully behind on this issue.”

Q: What can be done to address the racial disparities within the Multnomah County criminal justice system?

Meieran said the first step in the process is to admit there is a problem with systemic racism in the county and community. She has been on committees dedicated to learning how police deal with those suffering from mental health issues — and many of the findings can be translated to those of color.

“There is a deep anger and sense of a lack of admission and acceptance of responsibility,” Meieran said. “We need to engage those affected, and make sure people don’t end up in the criminal justice system in the first place.”

Zimmerman said the mission is to pull out anther seat at the table for those directly facing racial disparity, because they can help solve the problem externally and internally. He also is focused on the work being done to change criminal drug offenses to misdemeanors for people who have landed in jail.

“Those laws were used to arrest and convict minorities and people within the black community,” he said. “Use of force is too often used against minorities in jail.”

In a follow-up question about whether the county sheriff should be appointed rather than elected, the two candidates had a difference of opinion.

Zimmerman said he wants to keep the sheriff as an elected position, because in times of crises it would be a mistake to shift decisions away from the voters. Meieran disagrees, citing the issues that have cropped up recently around the position and the waste of resources it represented.

Q: What can be done about homelessness and a lack of housing in the county?

Zimmerman wants to build up existing programs and continue his vision of getting everyone off the streets. He said 2,000 people sleep on the streets every night, and that social workers can be used to walk the neighborhoods to form relationships with the homeless. Those connections can be used to convince them to get into shelters and services. He also discussed the need to keep people off the streets in the first place by creating ways for individuals to keep their homes during times of crisis.

Meieran is pleased that the county is finally on the right path to addressing the spectrum of homelessness and lack of housing. Taking a holistic approach and addressing the underlying issues is how she plans to proceed if elected. She wants to provide stable housing for everyone, while using prevention methods to keep them off the streets in the first place. Meieran said converting existing facilities to get people off the streets now is important.

Q: What needs to be done to improve the transportation ecosystem?

Meieran wants to take care of the most vulnerable, directly being involved at every level to further the conversations.

“Transportation ties into public health, livability of neighborhoods, getting people to work and environmental impacts,” she said.

Zimmerman is proud of the work he has done bringing safe routes to school into East Multnomah County, and wants to expand those methods to West Multnomah County as well.

“It is important within urban areas to look at alternatives to car transportation, and find ways to grow the city,” he said.

District 4

Q: What changes need to be made in the mental health system?

Schroeder said it is important to understand the different perspectives people have, especially those dealing with mental health issues. She has specifically worked with veterans at the Veterans Adminstration.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - The candidates for District 4 are Amanda Schroeder (right) and Lori Stegmann. “So many of my sisters and brothers at arms came back broken,” she said. “I am trying to help them navigate the incredibly bureaucratic system.”

She said she wants to take that approach and apply it to everyone, adding that schools and clinics need to receive more services.

Stegmann wants to remove the stigma that is attached to mental health, finding more funding to come up with solutions.

“If you have a broken arm or leg, you go to the hospital for treatment,” she said. “Why can’t we treat mental health crisises the same way?”

Stegmann wants to come up with programs to approach the problem in a new way.

Q: What can be done to address the racial disparities within the Multnomah County criminal justice system?

Stegmann said the current racial divide in the county is unacceptable, adding that parents shouldn’t have to worry about their children going out at night. The Gresham Police Department has started meeting with families that have had loved ones killed or hurt, and she wants to bring that program to the rest of the county. Stegmann stressed creating safe spaces to ask questions and share thoughts.

Schroeder said that the problem is immense and not easy to answer in such a short period, but pointed to finding the roots of the problems. She suggests limiting no-cause evictions for people of color, documenting when people do lose their homes to make sure it wasn’t racially motivated. She also said there needs to be accountability from everyone, with people feeling comfortable reporting any racial issues they see.

Both candidates agreed the county sheriff position should remain a vote, because taking away the voice of the community is a step backward.

Q: What can be done about homelessness and a lack of housing in the county?

Schroeder wants to keep increasing the amount of services and support for the homeless community. She wants to create a tenant’s bill of rights and provide rent stabilization to keep people off the streets in the first place.

“What is most important is that winter is coming,” she said. “We need to get emergency shelters open and allocate every available county building to protecting people.”

Stegmann is pleased to see so many different groups and organizations working together to find solutions. She has a three-pronged approach to the problem — preventing people from becoming homeless, providing emergency shelters and finding permanent housing.

“We need to address all three,” she said. “I am proud of the work being done, like how in 2015 we housed every homeless veteran who asked for shelter.”

Q: What needs to be done to improve the transportation ecosystem?

Stegmann said that because of gentrification, more people are being forced to relocate to East Multnomah County. This has created a stress on the region as the transportation infrastructure needs to be improved to better serve them. She wants to provide safer routes to school, and more bike lanes.

“We need to look at everything as a whole, because it is degrading, and we don’t have the proper funding,” Stegmann said.

For Schroeder, the lack of sidewalks in East Multnomah County spurred her to find ways to add more voices at the table. The lack of transportation options can limit how much parents can be involved with their children’s activities — which is something she wants to change.

“We need north- and south-running bus lines so people are able to work where they live,” Schroeder said.